June 19, 2014
by Jasper Willems
When did House Of Cosy Cushions, as your personal musical vehicle, manifest itself? Was it initially meant to be a solo project or a full-fledged band?
“Roughly ten years ago. During that timespan, I’ve never been all that aware of what House Of Cosy Cushions exactly entails. I just tried to let go of that and see things through, whatever happens really.”
You implement so many different art forms within the performance, using projections and installations. Is it like a Gesammtkunst thing or do you like to keep things separate?
“Again, it could be anything: sometimes I have exhibitions with just my drawings, sometimes I play acoustic sets, sometimes I do installations. The variation is what keeps it alive for me as well. It makes it even more enjoyable, more tangible.”
Does your visual art in some way connect to the music?
“I definitely think it does. Again, its not up to me to say what’s connected or how its connected. It’s not science, it’s music. Again, I always try to remain in the moment of creating stuff. When I’m in the studio, I’m definitely more selective. A lot of the visual stuff I make is horrible. (laughs) I’ve made so many things I never want to see or hear again. I do so many things I just get lost in it. But then, strangely enough, as I make the most horrible pictures, I always end up with a few bits that evoke a certain rawness I’m always looking for. I’m also very interested in sketches – things that sound unfinished – instead of making some pristinely produced album. It’s very easy to make something look or sound overtly beautiful. To the extent where it becomes more like a formula. I have more interest in music with an unfinished quality. Sometimes even a certain kind of clumsiness maybe, instead of something clever. I’m not interested in ‘clever’ people. I enjoy a certain liveliness: the best gigs I’ve seen always had really chaotic moments.”
Your résumé says “visual artist”. What precipitated first: visual art or music?
“Uhm, the first thing I did as a child was draw loads of stuff. I never stopped drawing. At one point, my Dutch grandfather gave me a Spanish guitar and I tortured the guitar until all the strings came loose. Eventually, it was totally battered. I was 14 years old, I think when I decided to actually play it. I think my Uncle kind of helped me out getting the guitar back into shape again. Then, just as I started playing, I immediately drifted into creating my own songs.”
Which side of your family is English, by the way?
“My parents met in Spain: my father is Dutch and my mum is English. Most of my family lives in England. I was born here in Holland, I lived here most of my life.”
Because of your background, do you observe Dutch society more from an outsider’s perspective?
“I always felt like an Englishman in Holland and, in turn, like a Dutchman in the UK. (laughs) Wherever I am at a particular moment, I kind of go back to the other country in my mind. It’s strange. But for me it’s a complete mixture. Me and my girlfriend decided to live abroad for while, initially in England. But then we went to Dublin. We thought: “Well, me might as well go to Ireland, because we’ve never been.” We just liked the vibe and the people there. It seemed to be a very friendly, lively city to reside. Which it was! I really enjoyed moving to Dublin because I met so many musicians that were into what I was doing straight away. I got to play with so many of them. I actually still play with a lot of them!”
Stephen (Kiernan, drums) being one of them.
“Stephen would be my brother. We always connect. He’s also a graphic designer, so he makes all of the album graphic design. I’m often the one who comes up with the drawings. We have a photographer in the band Joséphine Kurvers, who’s from Groningen. I work with loads of different people in all fields really. I try to connect them.”
Was it difficult to adjust living in Dublin at first?
“I remember when we left for Dublin, me and my girlfriend had no jobs. We had very little savings and lived on this really ugly campsite. We were like”I dunno, man…” it was quite a fearful time in some ways, because we basically had nothing. So all of a sudden we were in Dublin with no clue what was going to happen to us. Fortunately we eventually came across this beautiful place called Harolds Cross, which is just outside town. It’s near the most beautiful place in Dublin, at least in my opinion. It’s called Mount Jerome Cemetery: it’s this very tranquil place near downtown. We stayed there for four and a half years. During that period, I met so many people and played many gigs. I had such a good time!”
Is there a big difference between artist communities in Dublin and Amsterdam in your opinion?
“A massive difference. Personally, I’m more interested in the Dutch visual arts culture, from painting to performance to photography. In Ireland I’m more so intrigued by their music culture. That would be the main difference.”
So…what attracted you to music culture in Ireland?
“The improvising spirit, the urge to completely let go and be lost in the moment. To not cultivate everything. It is what it is. That’s the main difference. I also think people enjoyed the fact that I came here and they were surprised: “what’s this guy doing here?”. I think they picked up on that. I just met so many incredible musicians, it’s hard to stay in touch with all of them. Once you see them again and you’re best friends all over again. That’s the way Ireland works as well, you know? You can have a great time with someone you might not see again…EVER.”
Where did you live before moving to Dublin?
“I lived in a small town called Benthuizen, which is not too far from here. Then I moved to Amsterdam for ten years and then to Dublin for four, almost five years. I ended up living in Groningen…I think this is where I’ll stay! My girlfriend wanted to go back to Holland. I wanted to move to Groningen, because I always had the desire to live on one of the Wadden Isles in the North. We figured Groningen is a nice town and you can go (to the islands) anytime you want. The thing about Groningen is, that it’s a relatively big city yet it’s still surrounded by nature. Which in Holland, is quite unusual.”
You’re a family man now. Can you survive as a visual artist from Groningen?
“I find it easier to survive as a visual artist than as a musician. I’m getting support through funding in Groningen and Amsterdam. But I have a strong desire to keep it small. I’m not saying I don’t want to expand upon what I do now, that’s fine. But the crux of everything I do is kind of sober. I kind of enjoy living the sober life, you know? I much rather go visit an island like Schiermonnikoog than go on some world journey or whatever. As long as there’s a sea I’m happy. (laughs) I’m attracted to Nordic countries though. My favorite trip was Iceland, that was the most incredible journey!”
Where do your musical ambitions take you these days?
“Not sure if you could really call it “ambition”. But during this recent tour we did through Ireland, Belgium and now Holland,every gig, everyone was really listening. While we didn’t draw big audiences, everyone seemed to be into the music. And that’s beautiful, that’s what I aim for. Out of the ten gigs we did in total, there were maybe three people talking throughout. Only Paradiso! That’s great you know. I always come back to the venues I enjoy the most. In Ireland there’s this completely different venue called the Dabarra’s Folk Club. The guy that runs it, Ray, he’s such an amazing guy as well. He always lets us play there. It’s got a bit more of a folk vibe. There’s the same sense of freedom there as in WORM for instance.”
Was House Of Cosy Cushions already a project back when you lived in Amsterdam?
“Yeah, it was kind of like a loose-knit collective, which it actually remained. Dominique Brackeva (trombone) and Saskia Meijs (viola) were part of House Of Cosy Cushions from the start. I met Stephen in Dublin and Bastian Teeuwen (singing saw) in Groningen. I’ve been playing with loads of people all over the world basically.”
What was the incentive to head for Amsterdam at the time?
“I lived in a small town, which was horrible. There was nothing to do. If I wanted to get somewhere downtown, I always had to cycle to the train stations. I think I just had a romantic view of Amsterdam. And I just decided to live there. I went to Art College in Utrecht, I kind of stayed there because I enjoyed it. I did that for four years. It’s funny, because the tutors at art school…I mean, half of them were really into what I was doing. The fact that I tried everything: acting, music, photography painting, drawing. When it comes to visual stuff, my main focus has always been drawing. But the other half just went: you can’t do music AND visual art. They told me I HAD to choose between them. And I just was like “oh my god, this is so stupid”. Ultimately I decided to just keep the whole music thing to myself. I actually ended up making way more music during art school, during a time when I got evaluated for my visual art. Which is funny, in a way.”
What about social kinships at art school? Other than making art, gravitating towards it, you must’ve pined for bonding with like-minded people.
“That was the best thing about being there. I had a few friends with whom I’m still in touch with. We’d arrive at campus around 11 a.m. and we’d stay until the building closed. At times we’d ask if we could just hang out the whole night. We had the drum kit in the toilet, so whenever we needed to wake up, someone’d play drums in the toilet. It was great. The art school was at an industrial area, right outside downtown Utrecht. We had a big space completely to ourselves. At one point, I wanted to make these large improvised ink drawings after recovering a lot of wallpaper in the streets of Amsterdam. I was always walking around collecting materials. I started drawing on the back of wallpaper making these really full-scale ink drawings. That’s what I kept doing. It was great because you had these long extended hallways where you’d walk past them everyday.”
Your visual art is very distinct, a sort of jotting black & white style. Where does that come from?
“That has evolved too. Like I said, at art school I did these big ink drawings on the back of wallpaper. Now I’m starting to do more murals: for now, they’ll be part of the sound installations in the future. The installations at Groninger Museum consisted of these big canvases on which I project film loops. I feel the drawings are kind of akin to instrumental music. You get kind of lost in the moment. I did one called “Fearless” . The reason why I called it (that) is because I wanted to see if I could create something within that space again, without any premeditated concept. After working on that the first day, I wasn’t that “fearless” anymore! (laughs) I was working manically on it, yet it ended up becoming one of my favorite pieces. Often it takes a few years to realize what it is exactly that you’ve done. I tried not to think too much about it. The question should be whether it “feels good or not”, do you know what I mean? I’m not too concerned. I think I learned this at art school, to not to think about art at all. I saw that with a lot of my tutors there, they were almost businessmen in the way they discussed art. That’s not what I’m into personally, you know? With friends I hardly talk about creating art. Hardly, ever. We just make music. We just enjoy paintings. That’s it, you know? I don’t really see it as a “higher thing” or whatever.”
I think I understand what you mean. Once art becomes processed, concocted or contrived, you can frame it more easily. Or pinpoint it into a form of dialogue. That can potentially kill the mystery of it, I reckon.
“Yeah, David Lynch has said some really wonderful things about creating. In the end it’s all about the mystery, embracing the mystery. Being alive is a mysterious thing by itself, isn’t it?”
Spell seems to stem very much from your more recent experimentations with sound installations. The songs aren’t structured, more based around free form, kind of gossamer, condensed tape loops.
“I tend to lean mostly towards analogue equipment. This album kind of evolved gradually. It kind of started when I was asked to make a composition for Groningen Museum. While I love to go to the studio to write songs – I have so many songs that I never recorded – I figured it would be nice to do so without any preconceived ideas. I found that this is a really hard thing to do, because there’s always some little idea creeping up subconsciously. But I think I managed to sidestep this most of the time. I was working with Saskia, we wrote two tracks together. One is called “Kerkje Te Oostum”, which basically came to me as I cycled past this little church. It was a very intense bike ride. It had to do with everything, the temperature, the flatlands surrounding it. I thought to myself: “I have to put this into music.” Then I asked Saskia to make a loop, although she has never seen the church or heard about it. I told her not to worry about it: “This is the key, now you make something and I make something.” We didn’t quite glue it together but it ended up being that track, which I’m really happy with. It’s the last track on the album, but the first one we recorded.”
One track on Spell is named after German-Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon, who made Leben? Oder Theater: Ein Singspiel. What compelled you about her work?
“I remember reading it thinking: “I have to do something with this”. It was one of those experiences that was almost too intense. It’s basically a graphic novel because she painted her life and she added texts too her artwork. Just like, say, the work of Edvard Munch, you can see as she grew older – of course she died very young – her work becoming more raw, more loose. Nearing the end of of her life, just before she was deported to Auschwitz, the pictures she made are so intense. She just seemed such a brave woman. Her visual diary kept her from going insane. For me it’s almost a kind of prayer, this particular track. I don’t know, I felt that this song, this instrumental evokes the feeling I had when I read and looked at the book. It’s the most incredible journey, but also most tragic. I just feel so much love for her. It’s just a way of communicating with the feeling I had, I think. It’s funny that you can feel kind of a friendship with someone although, you’ve never met them. I had that with Vic Chesnutt as well. I met him once and I invited him to come over for dinner. He said he wanted to come but he had to pack up and move out the next day or whatever. When he died, I was devastated! It was terrible. Shortly after, that same year, Mark Linkous died and subsequently Cynthia Dall and Trish Keenan from Broadcast as well. I just couldn’t believe it. Those four people, they are like my friends, that’s kind of weird isn’t it? I never met them but I’m really thankful. Their loss, for me personally, was a very intense loss.”
Let’s focus on life for a mo. On “Black Bat Dance” you loop the heartbeat of your son Wolf. Tell me about that.
“The first time I could hear his heartbeat really clearly, he was only a few months old and I had my tape machine with me, which I always carry around. I just recorded it. I thought it sounded kind of like a techno track. I really enjoyed it. And it was a nice incentive too. I just improvised around the heartbeat.”
When you read your own lyrics, does it become abundantly clear what you meant by them? Or just sort of an abstract delirium?
“I work on lyrics all the time. If there is one thing that’s really hard that’s lyrics, they can destroy your song on a whim. I just try to write everyday. Some lyrics just stick with me and I end up singing them. Obviously, they mean a lot to me. But it’s not up to me to say what they’re about. You try to condense and put everything in them. It’s like buying a beautiful book with reproductions of paintings. and someone’s talking about the paintings. You see someone talking about these paintings, and you just kind of go, “leave me alone with these paintings”. It’s the same with a lyric or a poem. I don’t need anyone to explain William Blake to me, you know what I mean?”
At times I feel it’s more profound if you figure out the true source of inspiration behind a song. It doesn’t always have to be ambiguous.
“But I think the meaning is always there in the poem itself. I don’t need anyone else to tell me what it’s about. people like Marlene Dumas or Rene Daniels, two Dutch painters. I think they talk really beautifully about their work. And they’re very vulnerable too. I love that. It’s almost complementing the paintings. Often times, the way art critics talk about certain artists, it just almost destroys the beauty of it. (laughs) It’s very intellectual, it kind of sucks the sex out of it. All of my songs are kind of love songs. You work so hard on getting a certain lyric that you eventually sing. The only thing I can add to it is music or an image. There’s not much more I can say. A lot of people think my music is extremely dark, while others actually think it’s euphoric.”
When I came in yesterday night before the WORM gig, one of the first things you told me was that you wanted to change the setlist on a whim, because you’re feeling sort of an energy that calls for something different. The sort of stuff you only do when you’re in an environment where you feel you can evoke something without restraint or restriction. I found this genuinely cool.
“Well, I guess that’s true! Last night was the first time I played in WORM, one of my favorite venues. So when I came in there was a certain atmosphere and I picked up on that. I generally try to make setlists right before the gig. During the gig I sometimes play a song randomly, one that no one in the band has ever heard or rehearsed. During those little improvisations, Stephen often comes up with something amazing. Those are the kinds of things you cannot repeat or capture a second time. Sometimes I wish you could have that same energy in the studio. I have never been all that much about rehearsing things too much. It’s hard to say what improvising really means exactly, because sometimes I have the feeling I’m improvising all the time, though I’m always playing songs I’ve written. You have to allow yourself to get lost in the music. Also, there should always be a risk of failure. That’s the most important thing. And that’s why I love this woman called Maya Deren. She’s a filmmaker, I actually nabbed that “risk of failure”-line from her! (laughs) You can always question what failure truly is. Perhaps I treasure the mistakes, as they also add something to the music. It’s a tricky thing, failure, you know what I mean? I do a lot of music installations, I’ve been doing a few in the Groninger Museum and the Van Gogh Museum. They’re mostly improvised pieces, roughly fifty minutes in length. And in a way, especially during the first two improvisations, I completely let myself go for about forty-five minutes, playing about six different instruments. It was a very fearful experience. It was hard to let myself go. But now, after doing it a few times, I really treasure the things that just HAPPEN…the things you cannot control.”